It is open season on political candidates, and Urban Arias may have just bought the license to shoot them all. Their latest opera, Photo-Op, makes good on the company’s promise to sing tough and shoot straight while keeping things short, sharp, and sassily accessible. If you are weary of punditry and just a little cynical about the whole campaigning process (and aren’t we all?), this entertaining show is for you.
The work and its staging are dead on and often deadly funny. An ensemble of nine chorus members enter the dimly-lit stage slowly and face upstage in the darkness, standing in a kind of hopeful reverence. They watch as a giant American flag is raised to fill one wall of Artisphere’s black box theatre.
When the lights pop on brightly and the character of Sam Sawyer enters, we know that he is the awaited one, their candidate. Singer-actor Michael Mayes projects every inch of the leader of the free world. This singer-actor has the flashing eyes, a big bare-those-teeth smile, and all the familiar gestures down pat. Mayes stands tall, tall enough to convince us in his first onstage seconds he is the real thing, a Reagan-Bush2-Romney-Clinton-Obama clone.
He is joined by Marian, his wife and political help-mate. Laurie Williamson manages to convince us she is Michelle Obama in a Republican make-over. They wave, grab the adulation of an imaginary crowd, and sing “Thank you very much,” just those words, over and over as a first aria duet. Meanwhile, the ensemble of dancer-actors wheel around with clipboards, badges, money bills, cameras, and speech notes – all part of the campaign machinery and entourage.
The combination of music by Conrad Cummings and text by James Siena is very clever. Each scene or section is constructed with phrases becoming sound bites. These are sung, repeated at dazzling speeds and in complex rhythms, which shift surreptitiously to create new word emphases that in turn change slightly and reveal darker meanings. Something like “It’s a new direction for you and for me” morphs finally into “It’s for me.” In another scene, I do what I have to do for you” gets reduced to a garbled “I dodo what I do.”
One of the most chilling scenes is when the couple visits the troops, and our “first lady” Marian hugs then begins seductively to wraps her arms, then legs around the chorus of men dressed in desert fatigue shirts, while crooning “Will you die for me?” The men, when released, take a few steps before mimetically taking fire and falling to lie dead on the battlefield. All the while, our leader sings, “I pledge allegiance to you.”
Stage Director Alan Paul and Choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley have found a team of actor-dancers who together have fed off the coverage of the last two conventions and collaborated on forging televised moments and turning them into little choreographic gems. The same nine people cycle through in different costumes for photo ops. Actors – female, black and Hispanic, hurl themselves to the Candidate’s side then are flung away. A young mother has forgotten her baby, so the doll is thrown through the air to her. There’s a man in a wheel chair, who, as soon as the picture is snapped, gets up and transforms into some other representation of America’s diversity.
They re-imagine a couple’s being redressed in an image-is-all makeover. They’ve captured too the televangelism and the moment that the family is caught kneeling in silent prayer. They’ve captured the “lowest common denominator” with our fine couple bumping and grinding on an Ellen DeGeneres show. They’ve got the moments when both politico and his wife are tested and exposed by those around them. Sam gets caught up in some hanky-panky and then the woman publishes a book. Both Sam and Marian lose their belief and then lose their voices, reduced to stammering (which sounds an awful like an operatic vocalize) while their followers stand frozen in panic.
The close-knit work of the featured singers, Mayes and Williamson, supported by the collaborative skills of the ensemble members, is something quite rare in opera land. Paul and McCauley have established a rich playing field where the whole company seems to have had an artistically rollicking time developing this piece. Director and Choreographer have teamed up with Urban Arias before, and they really know how to shape stage business to build a world that lives bathed in rich sound.
The ensemble, several of whom I note have been trained in Synetic Theatre’s studio, displays the precision of dancers in all their movements. As physical actors, they are even more accomplished. Kathryn Connors, Kathy Gordon, Dustin Kimball, Robert Mintz, Ryan Sellars, Randy Snight, Joseph Thanner, Katherine Renee Turner, and Matthew Ward are unafraid to develop full-blown characterizations even in the tiniest of cameos.
The production is not without its flaws. Laurie Williamson’s voice lacks power that can balance Mayes’ rich baritone, and, at times, her sound feels pressed and even shrill. There is a sameness to the rushed patter of many of the settings of the words, which, combined with the very complicated rhythms occasionally trip up the singers and too often leave them gasping like fish.
The score is a maze of complicated rhythms which Conductor and Artistic Director Robert Wood does a valiant job in beating out for the four musicians in the orchestra. But the music rushes like a train yet never moves one emotionally.
Americans are renowned for hyperbole and self-adulation, and the creative team that put this show together falls into the same trap as the candidates they skewer. Composer Cummings said in the Talk Back following the show, that the text (all two pages of it) by James Sienna is the best opera libretto ever written. Ever? Photo-Op was recently named one of the best operas of the twenty-first century by Opera News. We’re barely over a decade into the century, folks. Are we ready to jump on the trend of a “best” list?
To me, the work has the feel of an exercise, a sometimes dazzling exercise mind you, but one whose emotional arc is somewhat limited. For me, there was a predictability in the way most of the scenes built text-into-song. Thankfully, the show’s brevity saves it from trying to be something bigger.
Photo-Op seemed an interesting experiment to be thrown out for combinations of ensemble to explore with different treatments. It was interesting to learn that composer and librettist never wrote in specific characters, relationships, or stage directions. Cummings stipulated only that the music was to be sung by one soprano and one baritone. In other productions, the two singers have been played as rival candidates. All productions must tackle the challenge of how to create a dramatic arc with a beginning, middle and end and how to thread a story through the musical “interludes” between vocal music.
Sept 8 – 15, 2012
1101 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22209
1 hour with no intermission
Tickets: $17 – $22
Fri and Sat, Sep14 and 15 at 8pm
Tickets or call 888-841-2787
So, an interesting question, is this an opera? Some would say that, in an opera, the composer writes every action and every emotional moment into the music. If one buys that premise, then this work might be more judiciously called a theatre piece, for in theatre, a good writer keeps things more open ended and thus more is developed through a rehearsal process. Is this only a matter of splitting hairs?
Opera or theatre or ensemble improvisational exercise, these creators have pulled off a somewhat opaque score that nonetheless speaks uncannily to this precise moment in history. Though written in 1989, the cast in rehearsal must have gasped as they went home to watch in real time both the Republican and Democratic conventions.
How marvelous to have been part of such an interplay in rehearsal.
We learned, for instance, only two words were changed from the original score. “Make My Day” is one of the original soundbites. So, imagine the company watching Clint Eastwood’s televised bit of theatre in Tampa a short week ago. How could the players not have pounced on the idea and staged the candidate to sing those immortal words to an empty chair? How delicious to capitalize on art imitating life. How shocking to discover, especially in politics, that life even more absurdly imitates art?
The last scene and sentiment is as frank and bold as art can get about life – or politics. I leave you to find out by going to see this show in its last few performances. I warn you, this may be what you go out singing. It’s a whole new way of thinking about “God bless America.”
Photo-Op, Music by Conrad Cummings, Text by James Sienna, Musical Direction by Robert Wood, Stage Direction by Alan Paul, Choreography by Lucy Bowen McCauley. Starring Laurie Williamson (soprano), and Michael Mayes (baritone) with Kathryn Connors, Kathleen Gordon, Dustin Kimball, Robert Mintz, Ryan Sellers, Randy Snight, Joseph Thanner, Katherine Turner, and Matthew Ward. Produced by Urban Arias, reviewed by Susan Galbraith.